Will the UAE's love affair with the engine end with electric cars? In the last of our series, petrolhead Mazin Al Khitab talks about this life in cars and how relationships are evolving
End of the internal combustion engine, part 4: an affection for classic cars lives on
Early risers in the late 1970s might have wondered if their eyes were playing tricks: an American gas guzzler cruising the back streets of Jumeirah with what seemed to be a boy, barely into his teens, at the wheel.
Mazin Al Khatib laughs at the 40-year-old memory. “I come from a family that always had drivers and I used to be one of those naughty kids who would wake up early in the morning, especially on a Friday when the streets are empty.” He pauses, then says: “I don't know what’s going to happen to me after this article, whether Dubai police are retroactive? Anyway, I grew up in Jumeirah and I would steal the car.”
He pauses again. “Not steal. Borrow.”
Talking to Mr Al Khatib, you might think he measures his life by cars. First, there was his childhood in Dubai. “My dad, God bless his soul – for him the automobile was literally a means of transportation. So I grew up on big, large, comfortable American cars, Buicks and Cadillacs, because, for my dad, comfort was the most important thing.”
Then there was university in the United States. “My dad was kind enough to buy me a brand new car and of course it was a sports car. It was a shift with a paddle and clutch, a Dodge Daytona Turbo Z.
“When I finished university, I shipped it back here and, stupid me – I didn’t know – that at that time, I needed to every single penny. I could not afford to have two cars, so I sold it. It was a big mistake…” He pauses again. “I wish I could find it.”
For a while, the real world intervened. Mr Al Khatib took a job as an investment banker, got married and had kids. But his passion for the internal combustion engine was never far away.
He began to buy cars. More than even a growing family could possible need. “When I started to make money – extra money – I started buying all my dream cars.
“Being in investment banking, I justified it to myself. Why? If I maintain them well and take good care of them, they will appreciate. And it became like a drug. I started buying one, then another, the third, the seventh, the tenth and then I had 17.”
He had to take over part of a warehouse to store them. How did his wife feel about his habit? Mr Al Khatib admits there was a divorce. There were many reasons, of course, but as for his car collection: “Yes, it was an issue.”
Then came the decision that changed his life, and of course, it was to do with cars. He had done well in banking, and was leading a successful team at a well-known financial institution. The money, of course, was excellent.
“I remember that I used to tell my team: ‘When you guys get up in the morning and you don't have a smile on your face ready to come to your work, don’t show up.’
“And honestly, it started to happen with me – I would wake up in the morning and there was no smile on my face.”
“That's when I made up my mind that I would leave and I would start to convert my passion in to a business. I was too young to retire, swim and play golf.”
The result is Nostalgia Cars, which he set up in 2015. They buy and restore classic cars, with a workshop and a showroom in Al Serkal Avenue.
“I chose this area because Al Serkal is the art hub of Dubai, with more than 50 art galleries in this compound,” he explains.
“I look at my cars – my stock – as pieces of art. Honestly, sometimes I sit for hours just daydreaming and staring at them.”
They make an impressive sight. Row upon row of gleaming, iconic names: a 1923 Model T Ford, a 1930 Chevrolet Deluxe, a 1972 classic Jaguar E Type and a 1965 Triumph TR4. There are over a dozen Mercedes, including a 1960 190, as well as a 1973 Rolls Royce Corniche and a 1959 Ford Thunderbird – a masterpiece in cream and chrome.
Mr Al Khatib says the business was set up from a collector’s point of view – “Every problem I had as a collector, I have solved it in my business.” He also wanted to prove that owning a classic car was affordable. “I wanted to show people who were like me that you can get a decent classic car that's appreciating in value for $25,000.” A fire engine red 1965 Mustang is US$23,000, for example, while the Ford Thunderbird is US$30,000.
So business is good, as you would expect in a culture as car crazy as the UAE. Yet most of his customers, like most of his cars, come from overseas. Mr Al Khatib thinks he understands why. “The culture of classic cars in the UAE is, in my opinion, not as big as, say, Kuwait or Saudi,” he said.
“If you look at Kuwait or Saudi, generations [who lived] in the 1940s and ‘50s had cars. Whereas in the UAE, in generations [living] in the ‘50s, not many [had cars], maybe the sheikhs and the big families.
“I am 50 years old and from my Abu Dhabi, Dubai, UAE friends, few of them would say ‘my grandfather had a car’. If you go to Kuwait and Saudi – way more. And that’s what’s reminding them: ‘Ah this is the car I remember my grandfather had. I used to go to his house and see it’.”
Still, he believes that attitudes here are changing. “What I’m seeing now is that a lot of younger generations are coming in and are interested to learn and start collecting.”
Part of the appeal of a classic car, he thinks, is their uniqueness. In the UAE, cars that would be a rarity elsewhere are common. It’s hard to stand out and make an impression. “The passion for cars here is amazing,” he said. “That’s why you see all these beautiful supercars. But if you really want to show off you cannot any more.
“You might go to a hotel and you find a couple just like yours. One of the things you look for in a supercar is that you are the only one on the road.”
What though, of the future for cars? Recently, Mr Al Khatib found himself in conversation with a senior executive from General Motors. “He was telling me where we are going, and I was like: ‘are you serious?’
“Sit in a car and it takes [the kids] to school and it drives home alone to take you to the office.”
How does he feel about this? “Bad! I feel bad. It’s convenient, fine. But...” His voice tails off. This is a father who insisted his daughters learn to drive on cars with a manual transmission. “They were the only ones, when it came to the test,” he says proudly.
The love affair with the internal combustion engine will not end with the advent of the electric, driverless car, he hopes. But the relationship may evolve. Mr Al Khatib has just returned from a business trip to China. “The demand and interest in the sample of people I met is amazing,” he said. “They want to buy classic cars. They want to keep them to show their grandkids that this is what a car looks like.
“In few years, the young ones will look at a car and go wow! So from a business point of view? I can't wait!”